October 10, 2005
-- Martin E. Marty
Yesterday, 40,000 atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Jews, and secularists gathered on the lakefront in our city for a sacred tribal rite. And seventy-four days from now, thousands will gather at a huge theater near the lakeshore to celebrate another rite. "You're just kidding," you might say. So I'd better explain.
At 8 a.m. on Sunday, 40,000 runners participated in the 28th LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon. They were supported or viewed by thousands, while others watched or listened to a broadcast of the event at 10 a.m. -- church time. As for the other event, I learned of it in a story about a Chicagoan who was eager to trade for a ticket to a possible future White Sox play-off game. His offer: "fifth-row passes to a sold-out, Christmas Eve performance of 'Wicked.'" My wife assures me that "Wicked" is an enjoyable musical -- nothing wrong with it. But:
You might think that this week's column should be called not Sightings but Squintings, because these evidences of "secularization" or "resacralization" on new terms are not headline items. But they occur a) on the Lord's Day and then b) on the eve of one of the two holiest days on the Christian calendar. And this in a very religious city -- not "Bible Belt Buckle" religious, but still heavily Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, and "African American."
But Chicago is really no different from anywhere else. Sunday morning has simply and triumphantly become Marathon Day in most cities. We can remember when Jewish bartenders in Milwaukee would substitute for Christian bartenders on Christmas Eve so the latter could attend mass or other worship. Will the attendees on Christmas Eve at "Wicked" all be non-Christians? Not likely. Eighty percent of America's citizens identify with "Christian," which led to my tongue-in-cheek deduction that the runners and the play-goers had to be non-Christian. Otherwise "Christians" have given away their Holy Day and Holiest Night.
Time to editorialize: Also about 80 percent of the American people when polled are ready to coerce witness to God in public places, on courtroom and public-school walls. They want the state to deliver religion -- even Southern Baptists want this! -- to mixed captive citizenries. The marathon runners wore shorts without pockets, but when they pulled on slacks, they carried money fortified by the slogan "In God We Trust," and will head later in the week to public high school games where they and their children will sing "God Bless America."
The question: Why insist on the legal support and not the voluntary? America, most scholars agree, displayed religious vitality because churches and other worshipping communities drew on voluntary support and gathered free congregations. If legally privileged or coerced endorsement and worship of God is supposed to have a good effect on religion, where is the evidence?
Now it's time to protect myself. I know that marathon running can be very "spiritual." And the races can raise money for good causes: 6,000 of the participants ran for 43 charities (and generated $100 million for our local economy).
The single point here is that indifference to worship and the activities of religious communities is a voluntary choice. Support, when it still comes, does not result from putting God in state-backed locales. Secularization results from free choice.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.